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One thing I love about teaching is that the list of ways you can improve is a mile long. It truly never gets boring. But because the work of a teacher has so many dimensions, it’s easy to get overwhelmed; you can’t possibly do it all.
So instead of trying to tackle everything at once, I recommend you pick just one thing. Consider an upcoming time frame when you’ll be away from your regular teaching duties, like summer or spring break. Then decide how much of that time you actually want to focus on meeting a goal—after all, you might just want to catch up on your DVR or do some travelling. If you do want to set aside some time to improve your practice, just pick one thing and focus on that.
First, Determine Your Needs
Start by figuring out where you really need work: I have created an exercise called the Gut-Level Teacher Reflection that will help determine what areas of your practice need the most attention. Go ahead and take that, and once you’ve decided on some key areas for improvement, it’s time to set your goal. To help you, I have put together a list of eight possible paths you might take toward self-improvement as a teacher.
1. Strengthen Your Tech Skills
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some room for growth with technology. But it’s one thing to say you’re going to “get better at technology,” and quite another to take deliberate action to improve your skills. Here are some steps you might take:
- Become a Google Educator. This is something I plan to do later this year. It’s a certification that basically marks you as having a solid foundation in Google’s online tools. You earn it by working through a series of free online courses that prepare you for five online exams. Four of these are based on your knowledge of Google Apps for Education (Google Docs and Drive, Sites, Calendar, and Gmail), then you choose one elective exam (options include Chromebooks and Google Chrome browser). Becoming a Google Educator is the first step toward becoming a Google Certified Teacher, which is a much bigger deal and involves on-site training for just a small group of teachers every year. Learn more at Google for Education Exams and Certifications.
- Complete my JumpStart Course. JumpStart is a self-paced, 10-module course designed to get moderately comfortable tech users to the next level. I designed it to mimic the same way I learned, a process that took me from being a basic Word-Facebook-PowerPoint-email user to being really, really comfortable with technology. Learn more about the course here.
- Attend an Unconference. If you want to keep it simple, you might want to just focus on exposing yourself to new tools. A fast, fun, and inexpensive way to do this is by going to an “unconference,” a grassroots professional development gathering organized and run by teachers. These are often called EdCamps or TeachMeets, and though they don’t exclusively focus on technology, most seem to lean pretty heavily in that direction. Learn more about attending an EdCamp or TeachMeet in your area.
- Get Better at Twitter. Plenty of people have a Twitter account, but not everyone uses it to its full potential. Learn how here and you just might discover why educators call Twitter “the best professional development I’ve ever had.”
2. Brush up on Your Pedagogy
No matter how long a person has been teaching, there’s always room for pedagogical improvement. Whether you’re learning new theories, brushing up on the basics, or just adding a new technique to your arsenal, improving the way you actually teach should be a recurring feature on every teacher’s to-do list.
- Add some new teaching strategies to what you’re currently doing. To learn one fast, take a look at my collection of instructional strategy videos demonstrating techniques like concept attainment, reciprocal learning, the Jigsaw strategy, and lots of others.
- Learn more about learning. For our summer book study of 2015, I chose the book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel. This book digs into new research about the way people learn, and why so many of our common educational practices just don’t work. The final product of our book study was a 7-part series of video reflections by me, plus a podcast interview with the author. Another excellent book would be John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers, which is reviewed here.
- Improve the way you differentiate instruction. If you’re like most teachers, you think you could be doing a better job at differentiating. Check out my Starter Kit for Differentiated Instruction, a collection of articles, videos, documents, and tools that will help you improve in this area.
3. Improve Your Classroom Management
Here’s another area we could all improve on. If your class isn’t run well and your students aren’t focused, it’s pretty hard to get anything else done. You can attack this issue from a lot of different angles. Here are some suggestions:
- Do a classroom management book study: You could choose something very practical, like Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School or Robert Marzano’s Classroom Management That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Every Teacher. Or you could go more holistic, focusing on relationship building and communication. Two books I absolutely love for this purpose are How to Talk so Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, a fantastic guide to adjusting your communication style with students, and James Sturtevant’s book about building relationships with students, called You’ve Gotta Connect: Building Relationships that Lead to Engaged Students, Productive Classrooms, and Higher Achievement.
- Take an online course in Classroom Management: Two affordable online courses you can take are the Pro-Active Behavior Management Webinar, created by Angela Watson of the Cornerstone for Teachers, which is designed for elementary-school teachers, or Classroom Management 101, offered by Linda Kardamis of Teach 4 the Heart, which would be ideal for teachers in grades 4-12.
4. Get More Politically Active
If you’re tired of feeling frustrated by policies that negatively impact your work, it might be time for you to start taking more action to influence those policies. Here are some ways you can move in that direction:
- Listen to Episode 18 of my podcast, where I interviewed activist Anthony Cody about how teachers can get more involved in educational activism.
- Download a copy of my Education Activist’s Starter Kit, a comprehensive list of resources to help any teacher learn how they can start taking action.
- Find a group of like-minded colleagues and make a plan that includes learning about the issues and participating in one of the many events around the country and online that are pushing for saner and more effective educational policies.
5. Adjust Your Mindset
One of the most significant improvements you can make to your teaching is changing the way you think about it. Mindset has a powerful impact on how you experience your work and whether or not you continue to grow and thrive. Here are some ways you can systematically work toward developing a healthier mindset:
- Read a teacher mindset book like Angela Watson’s Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching and you’ll notice a big difference in the way you process the daily challenges of teaching. Pair that up with Watson’s newest book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What and you’ll find yourself experiencing your work in a very different, and happier, way.
- Create a support group with other teachers who want to make the same kinds of changes in their own mindset. Read either of these books together and set aside some time to talk through the insights and questions that come up as you read.
- Build mindfulness practice into your regular routine, which will help you reduce stress, feel more purposeful, and actually become more productive. Meena Srinivasan’s book, Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness In and Out of the Classroom, talks about the value of mindfulness practice for teachers and includes a mindfulness curriculum you can use with students.
6. Freshen up your Slide Presentations
Chances are, you probably use PowerPoint or Keynote to create slide presentations. But are you familiar with best practices for slide creation? Most people aren’t, and that means the world is chock-full of heinously ineffective slideshows. To start improving yours, get a copy of Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. By reading just a few chapters, you’ll start to understand exactly what needs to change about your slideshows, and you’ll be motivated to fix them.
7. Take the First Step Toward National Board Certification
Becoming a National Board Certified Teacher was absolutely the best professional decision I ever made, and it had the most significant impact on the quality of my teaching. Even though I have grown in so many ways since my initial certification in 2004, I still see a few key moments during the process as major turning points in the way I view my work. It raised my expectations for myself and drastically changed the way I measure the quality of my teaching. If you are based in the U.S. and want to learn more, start by reading my post about why getting National Board Certification is worth it (Conquering National Board Certification, and why it’s totally worth it)
8. Get Organized
I left this one for the end because my guess is that this is one of the most common goals for everyone. If organization is your issue, the first tip I can give you for getting more organized is to narrow that goal down to something more specific: Do you want to manage your time better? Organize your digital files? Pull together all the pieces of dozens of little projects you have going on? Here are some tools that can get you started:
- To organize your time, try Google Calendar. It took me a little while to learn it, but now I keep all of my important events, daily tasks, birthdays, everything on it. And what I love is that it’s also synced with my phone, so I get reminders on the go as well.
- To organize your digital files, consider using a cloud-based storage platform like Dropbox or Google Drive.
- To organize your projects, a note-taking tool like Evernote can really help you keep all the pieces in one place.
- To get your classroom in order, you absolutely must check out the incredible collection of classroom organization tips from the Clutter-Free Classroom website.
How are you growing as a teacher?
I would love to hear about the goals you’ve set for yourself as a teacher. I’m sure I left some things out (actually, as I was finishing this up I realized I completely forgot building content-area knowledge), so let’s keep building this list together. In the comments below, tell me about a past goal you’ve set for yourself as a teacher, and how successful you were at meeting it. Or share a future goal and tell us what your plans are for reaching it.
As my friend Ruth would say, this really is such a marvelous job, isn’t it? ♥